Cuenca

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We have been hanging out in Cuenca, a small city in the south of Ecuador, for the last few days, a much needed break after the tiring work of last Monday to Friday’s cycle. Cuenca reminds us very much of an Italian or Spanish city, with beautiful colonial architecture set among bustling markets and with an air of modernity that certainly reinforces our impression that this country is not the poor nation many imagine.

It is also a good base for exploring what the region has to offer and we have taken the opportunity to visit the Inca ruins at Ingapirca on our journey here and to spend a day hiking in the Cajas National Park, an inspiring landscape of lakes and mountains that seemed so like the highlands of Scotland.

The road from Banos also followed the old Ecuadorian rail line, one of the worlds great train journeys before it was allowed to fall into disrepair. It was hard to believe that as we cycled through valleys and gorges and up over high passes that a railway line could follow the same route.

It did thanks to what were at the time outstanding achievements in engineering. From high above the town of Alausi we peered down to see the tracks twisting themselves into the famous Alausi loops up a long gorge from the equally famous Nariz del Diablo, the Devil’s Nose. This is an almost vertical wall of rock up which the train zig-zags to make the connection between the costal lowlands and the mountainous interior.

The terrain was certainly challenging then and it has proved so now to us too, cycling at altitude has worn us out. But it has also allowed us to experience the richness and colour of life that populates these remote corners. Colour in the clothes of these mountain people, descendents of the Inca people, colour in the great variety of crops grown on steep mountainsides, with farming techniques harking back to distant and now forgotten times.

Old traditions live on here and near the town of El Tampo is one of the most important Inca sites of Ecuador. Ingapirca is on the old Inca road running from Cucso to Quito and it had a certain mystical and thought provoking air to it on the sun bathed but chilly morning that we visited.We were very early and so had the place to ourselves. Looking around one can only imagine what went on there and how people lived at that time. The place left us deep in thought yet feeling very relaxed.

Although these are our days off we had heard so much about Cajas National Park that we really wanted to get up there for a day and explore. Cajas is an hour from Cuenca, the bus following a Swiss like valley high into the mountains, leaving us at a point 4000mtrs above sea level.

Another Inca road runs through the park, once the connection between coast and mountains. The area was carved out in the last ice age and the glaciers left behind a jagged landscape with hundreds of lakes. The name "cajas" comes from the bitter cold of the wind that blows through the many passes up there, passes that made the journey from the lowlands possible. We wrapped up well, packed some lunch and planned to spend the day walking on one of the many routes through this beautiful wilderness. I felt like we were back in Scotland for the day!

We met an older Australian couple, Geoff and Rosemary, up there walking the same trail. It turns out that they are cycling too, on pretty much the same route as we have done, and, like us, they are planning to head to Patagonia. Inspiring stuff. We spend a great hour chatting away over lunch, bike stories and life stories. We really hope to meet up with them further down the road.

 Although it is possible to camp out in Cajas (in fact you could easily spend several days walking there) we value our days of rest and so made it back to Cuenca and decided to check out Cafe Eucalyptus and got chatting to Chris, the English owner. Talk centered around life in Ecuador and adventure, and he recommended some interesting alternatives to the Inca Trail at Machu Picchu and also informed us on some of the local road conditions. Information for the future and information for now. There is a landslide on the road to the coast and so tomorrow we begin the last leg of our current Andes adventure, heading instead towards Loja and from there to the Peruvian border. Still in the mountains, but heading to the lowlands and deserts of northern Peru. And more Inca sites. There will be weeks in the mountains further south but for now we need a change of scenery. And so the Andes part one is drawing to a close. It is true to say that it has left us gasping for breath, both literally and figuratively. What a spectacular journey the last couple of months have been.

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